Film

A Final Report from the Cannes Film Festival 2009

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CANNES, France—Memorable for its in-your-face sensationalism,
the 62nd Cannes Film Festival opened with the 3-D computer animation
Up, saving the “Yours” for the final minutes of the
competition’s penultimate movie, Gaspar Noé’s “psychedelic
melodrama” Enter the Void.

The sad, tawdry, monstrously inflated tale of two traumatized club
kids adrift in the neon wilderness of downtown Tokyo, Enter the
Void
climaxed, so to speak, with a wide-screen, simulated vagi-cam
mega-close-up of a Brobdingnagian penis, thrustin’ atcha. Perhaps it
was the simple expression of the filmmaker’s megalomaniacal desire to
fuck the audience. But, having bitch-slapped viewers for the past two
and a half hours with drug visions, strobe attacks, febrile sexual
encounters, a graphic abortion complete with bloody fetus, a fatal
shooting in a feces-smeared toilet stall (repeated three times), and a
subjective view of a head-on car crash (four times)—everything
but the latter shown from an overhead perspective with a
nausea-inducing jittery camera—Noé’s final gesture seemed
more like his desperate last attempt to provoke a response—any
response.

Were we jaded? The competition had already offered up Chan-wook’s
feverishly baroque vampire gore-fest Thirst, Brillante Mendoza’s
harrowing Kinatay—in which a young prostitute is abducted,
beaten, tortured, raped, sodomized, murdered, and matter-of-factly
dismembered in a 45-minute more or less real-time sequence—and,
of course, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, with its three indelible
money shots: crushed testicles, ejaculated blood, and clitoral
circumcision self-performed in tight close-up. Even the competition’s
most ostensibly academic movie, and eventual winner, Michael Haneke’s
The White Ribbon subscribed to the cinema of cruelty, enlivened
by tame images of mutilated children and crucified song birds.

Von Trier had told journalists that Antichrist arose out of
his severe depression. Was he simply characterizing his own mental
state or was he responding to a malaise affecting all of cinema? While
Antichrist et al. offered shock therapy, more benign films, like
Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces and Tsai Ming-liang’s
Visage, prescribed a nostalgic course of treatment—each
celebrating the process of movie-making. (There was also a gentler
expression of cinephilia in the outpouring of critical love for
87-year-old Alain Resnais’s inane Wild Grass—the cinematic
equivalent of Willem DeKooning’s last paintings.)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to fuse cine-narcissim with
desperation and take movie magic literally. In Inglourious
Basterds
‘ fantastic revision of World War II, all aspects of the
motion picture apparatus (projectionists, exhibitors, film critics,
exploitation directors, movie stars) band together to destroy fascism,
and, as the director might have enthused, really fuckin’ rewrite
history! But if the most characteristic films selected for competition
at Cannes were put under psychoanalysis, a fundamental, ontological
anxiety might be revealed: Do movies still move us? Does cinema still
have the power to thrill? What does it take to provide a visceral
experience? Not for nothing did Noé describe Enter the
Void
as a ghost story. Is the medium itself even alive?

Unlike the past two festivals, Cannes 2009 did not offer a
superabundance of cinematic riches. But the short answer is, yes, of
course. Just beyond the competition’s klieg light, signs of life: There
was Francis Ford Coppola’s struggle to reinvent himself as a personal
film artist in Tetro and Malian director Souleymane
Cissé’s first movie in 15 years, the sardonic soap opera Min
ye . . .
(half a season of Desperate Housewives in two
hours). Haim Tabakman successfully transposed Brokeback Mountain
to the back alleys of ultra-orthodox Jerusalem in Eyes Wide
Open
; Zhao Liang painstakingly documented China’s underground legal
system in Petition; Portuguese director João Pedro
Rodrigues presented an unclassifiably sad and funny drag queen
fado musical, To Die Like a Man; and Romanian filmmaker
Corneliu Porumboiu produced a small masterpiece on the nature of
vérité, Police, Adjective. A 20-year-old
French-Canadian director, Xavier Dolan, won three awards in the
Directors’ Fortnight with his sardonic family drama I Killed My
Mother
, while 24-year-old Philippine filmmaker Raya Martin recast
his country’s national struggle as an imaginary primitive talkie called
Independencia. Martin’s special effects include tinted
black-and-white film stock, occasional superimposition, and almost
synchronous sound. Pure cinema—no sex, little violence, not even
3-D!

Handed a surprisingly violent but generally lackluster slate, the
Cannes jury decided to share the wealth by recognizing nine of the 20
films in competition.

The Palme d’Or went to one of the most substantial movies vying,
Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Jury president Isabelle Huppert
appeared delighted to bestow the award on the Austrian filmmaker who
had directed her own prize-winning performance in The Piano
Teacher
, Cannes’ grand scandale of 2001.

Runner-up Grand Prix went to French director Jacques Audiard for
A Prophet—a conventional prison drama in which a Corsican
gangster gives a poor Arab youth his education in crime. The movie was
a critical favorite, and the press, which watches and riffs on a live
telecast of the award ceremony en masse, was delighted with the
prize—as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award for Resnais.

On the other hand, incredulous gasps and boos greeted Huppert’s
announcement that Mendoza had been named best director for
Kinatay—the competition’s least entertaining exercise in
cine-brutalism and hence its most hated film. Kinatay proved to
be the jury’s most outré choice. Despite rumors that it might
win the Palme d’Or, Noé’s Enter the Void was shut out,
while von Trier’s Antichrist and Tarantino’s Inglourious
Basterds
were recognized only for their performances. The
nine-member jury was distinguished for including five
actresses—lending additional weight to the choice of Charlotte
Gainsbourg for her brave and uninhibited turn in Antichrist. The
Best Actor award went to Basterds‘ comic, sinister villain, the
multilingual German actor Christoph Waltz. His performance was more
universally admired than the movie and, indeed, Huppert appeared to
roll her eyes during Waltz’s effusive thanks to his director.

The press greeted other prizes with mild derision. The award for
best screenplay went to Lou Ye’s Spring Fever; whatever its
other merits, the story of a gay-straight triangle in contemporary
China was hampered by a notably rambling, uneven, and inconclusive
script. The third place Jury Prize was split between South Korean
director Park Chan-wook’s pointlessly excessive vampire extravaganza
Thirst and British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s underwhelming
miserablist youth drama Fish Tank. However, the award to Arnold
(who won the Jury Prize for her first film Red Road in 2006) may
have been a concession to jury member, the British writer Hanif
Kureishi.

Cannes jurors invariably describe their experience as a sort of
life-changing love-in. But, notably unsmiling, Kureishi used the
occasion of the traditional post-ceremony press conference to
characterize the films under consideration as generally long and often
“weird,” volunteering the information that he would never wish to sit
through Kinatay again.